Keshet Tackles Taboo Topics in Israel

Storylines tease out serious issues

One of the most beloved comedies on Israeli television today concerns a hapless Arab journalist balancing family, work and an unquenchable desire to blend in with his Jewish peers.

“Arab Labor,” whose Hebrew name, “Avoda Aravit,” cheekily refers to a racial slur for lowbrow work, was a risk for Keshet when it premiered in 2007. In a Hebrew-speaking nation, it features Arab characters and mostly Arabic dialogue. Its storylines tease out the very serious issues of racism, cronyism and xenophobia that lurk in Israeli society.

But the program, written by novelist and Haaretz columnist Sayed Kashua and starring Norman Issa as the luckless Amjad, is undeniably funny. So funny, in fact, that it was a hit with Jewish viewers and went on to sweep the 2012 Israeli Academy of Film and Television Awards. After four strong seasons, a fifth is upcoming.

Keshet played with the same sort of risky business when it ordered “Yellow Peppers,” which takes a long, focused look at autism and the impact it has on a family with a talented, yet troubled, 5-year-old boy. Such gutsy programming is what has helped Keshet push ahead of its competitors and truly stand out in a crowded international market. Born in a region filled with landmines, both political and literal, Keshet is known for never sidestepping the issues.

Gideon Raff, creator of “Prisoners of War” and its U.S. sibling “Homeland,” says that attitude is what made his programs such a success.

“Keshet is the biggest and most successful broadcaster in Israel, so everybody is very cynical about their numbers and ratings,” he says in a phone interview from Morocco, where he is currently lensing the pilot of his new FX series “Tyrant.” “But I found a group of people who only care about story, that are huge risktakers, that would do anything to bring that big story to the audience. … I found real partners in the creative process in them.”

When Raff first brought his script for “Prisoners of War” to Keshet, three Israeli soldiers were being held in captivity: Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Shalit, who spent five years in Hamas captivity in Gaza, was famously released in October 2011, while the bodies of Regev and Goldwasser, whom the public later learned were killed before capture, were returned to Israel in 2008 as part of a prisoner exchange.

The presence of approximately 1,500 returned POWs living in Israel helped inspire the show. Before “Prisoners of War,” Raff says, Israelis didn’t talk about soldiers who were taken captive.

“It was such a taboo,” he says of the topic, “that (the show) became very controversial … But I always thought the argument that we shouldn’t do the show was a very foolish one. It’s such a raw nerve, it was such an open wound in society, that I felt we should do it.”

The public embraced the program, and soldiers who had themselves been POWs began calling Raff every Saturday after each episode to talk about their experiences. Thanks to a televsion program, that open Israeli wound started to heal.

“It’s all because of Keshet,” Raff says, “because they were brave enough to do it.”

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